In the last few decades, countries the world over have experienced a huge growth in the number of imported Japanese restaurants. Sushi has been popular worldwide for quite some time and ramen restaurants are quickly spreading too, but there is much more food in Japan to try.
There are a number of foods that the country has brought in and modified but overall, there are far too many dishes that one should try when visiting Japan. Here is an appetiser of what awaits any fortunate visitors to Japan’s shores.
While sushi is the first name on everyone’s lips when they think of Japanese food, they may often be referring to sashimi. Technically, sushi is any dish that contains vinegared rice (usually with raw fish as well), while sashimi is thinly sliced, raw food; again, usually meaning but not limited to, fish.
While not as ubiquitous as one may think because they tend to be a little more expensive than others, there are plenty of sushi restaurants throughout Japan. Each region of Japan will also offer regional specialities and you should be sure to try as many types as possible. Just don’t expect to see many ‘California Spring Rolls’…
Noodles: Ramen, Udon, Soba
The most popular form of noodles, both in Japan and as an export, ramen noodles were only introduced from China in the early 20th Century but quickly became their adopted nation’s favourite noodle. With a staggering number of varieties to choose from, it’s easy to get confused but a ramen dish is really quite simple; thin wheat noodles served in one of four types of hot broth – salt, soy sauce, miso or pork-bone. Added to this can be a staple such as egg or pork, or something more daring such as oysters or chicken wings.
Udon is similar in that it consists of wheat flour noodles (usually) served in a hot broth with some additional toppings, but differ because of their thickness. The noodles themselves don’t have as much taste as ramen noodles, allowing them to be served with a greater variety of accompaniments. The highlight of typical side dishes are the fried and battered vegetables/ seafood of tempura.
While the word soba is used to signify all noodles, a ‘soba dish’ is a particular type. Buckwheat noodles that have a strong taste, soba dishes are by far the healthiest of all the noodle variations in Japan and though not often found in the cheap, fast-food-like restaurants in big cities, they are popular in more traditional restaurants. Often made with flour, but often not, soba noodles are the best choice for vegans, vegetarians and those on a gluten-free diet.
While almost all the foods listed here have a fast-food variation, no other Japanese food does it quite as well as gyūdon. A portion of rice topped with thinly sliced beef and onions and accompanied by helpings of shredded ginger, chilli and soy sauce, this is the ultimate quick meal.
There are several different huge chains selling gyūdon that dominate Japan, but all offer the same no-frills, minimal customer interaction and bargain prices. Perfect for the over-worked and over-travelled, they are also great for solo diners and anyone who fancies trying a uniquely Japanese dish.
Snack food: Yakitori, Karaage, Gyoza, Edamame beans
One of the best places to eat and drink in Japan is in an izakaya. Targeting salarymen who have just finished work, they provide cheap draft beer, a great atmosphere and quick-fire service and food. The first dish usually eaten is the simple but delicious bowl of edamame beans with soy sauce and salt.
Izakayas will often have different specialties but almost all will offer some variations of ‘yakitori’ (grilled chicken skewers), ‘karaage’ (fried chicken usually served with lemon) and ‘gyoza’ (boiled or fried dumplings).
Originally imported from India, of course, Japanese curry slowly developed its own distinct taste and style. The sauce is usually made with roux which makes it much thicker and less colourful than a normal Indian curry, and don’t expect to find any naan bread on the menu.
The most popular form is the tonkatsu curry, which comes with a deep-fried pork cutlet on top. Typical Indian restaurants do exist in Japan but nowhere else in the world can you try this incredibly Japanese take on one of the world’s most popular types of food.
Food in Japan
Cut off from the rest of the world for most of their modern history, and spread over a series of unique volcanic islands, the cuisine of Japan has remained truly distinct from the rest of the world for centuries. Be sure to try as much different food as you can while in Japan, as nowhere else on earth will you find the sushi so fresh, the ramen so filling and the curry so…Japanese.